Following the film was a discussion with host Sai Murray and film director Sylvia Vollenhoven (who joined via Zoom from South Africa). Capturing the urgency of the current conversation around climate change and the deep links between UK politics, policies and institutions and the impact this has on other countries. The discussion was recorded and here we have a transcription for you to enjoy.
You can watch the film here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/jozigold
Book: The Keeper of the Kumm: Ancestral longing and belonging of a Boesmankind
SM: Sylvia is not only a filmmaker, an award winning journalist, playwright, writer and knight fellow. Her book about identity, the Keeper of the Kumm won the award for literature, and her dance drama adaptation of the book was showcased on the main programme at the South African National Arts Festival, nominated for various awards – best director, best documentary, playwright, award for human rights in the arts etc.. Individual artist, activist and it’s our real pleasure to welcome you to this screening. Brilliant so we have a select audience gathered here today who I’m sure have questions and responses but I’d also like to begin by thanking you for such an inspiring film, a very provocative film and a really important film. Some really really interesting facts and also the way the film was put together and characters. I guess my first question comes from a conversation I had around the film with one of the people who invited me here today who is from South African heritage and who’s here. Our reaction I guess to knowing this film was about Johannesburg, about mining and your choice to follow this character – because we begin with the stilettos, with the very ornate dressed individual of the white woman but you being a black film director, that was not what was expected but she is such an interesting and intriguing character who has done a lot of good and her activism is having a lot of results. So could you speak about the choice to follow this individual and how you perhaps first became aware of her activism?
SV: Greetings! Thank you for screening the film and thank you for this opportunity. How I first got to hear about this is there’s a tiny magazine in South Africa that is small in numbers and audience but very very powerful. It’s an investigative journalism magazine called Noseweek and the editor of that magazine and I have worked together at different media houses and I’ve always been following his work and I’d seen so much of Mariette Liefferink’s activism in Noseweek. In fact, we feature in the film that Superwoman power image – that came out of Noseweek! The editor also has a son who is a journalist and Adam Wells had been following Mariette’s story and filming and he’s more of a print journalist rather than a filmmaker and he was following her around for 4 years. He has a friend who’s the director of a film in Norway and spoke to Stephan about finishing this film that he had been filming for four years but didn’t know how to structure and didn’t know how to put it all together. Stephan said well I have a friend in Sweden, Frederick Garrington[?] At WG Film would be very interested in the story, and Frederick said I’ll get on board if Silvia is the South African producer and my co-director because Frederick and I have been working together for many years and we also are very close friends for decades, having covered apartheid together and I used to be a correspondent for a Swedish outlet. So that’s how it came about. But I must say when Adam Wells, the South African journalist, came to see me and said Frederick said he’s on board if you become the South African director I was not agreeable! I just had not met Mariette and I thought I’m not going to sit here so many years after South African democracy and allow a white Africans woman to tell us what is wrong with South Africa. It just didn’t sit well with me. But then I went to Johannesburg and in Cape Town at the time and changed my mind completely. There were two things that changed my mind mainly, there were lots of little things, but the two main reasons were her integrity and her passion and the second reason was that being an activist myself I knew how important it was to have an image that was out of the ordinary, that would stop people in their tracks, and not only did she have this exotic image that was attention getting and we could use to our advantage for the activism that the film is hoping to elicit but also in the mining industry, dominated by men, and a certain kind of patriarchal class, they don’t see her coming, and by the time they sit up and take notice she’s already in the Supreme Court with a huge court case. So I thought well given my activism background I could really work with this woman.
SM: That’s a really really brilliant insight and I think the film certainly did that to me as well, it really played upon my presumptions and the stereotypes I have and my prejudices actually and I think as you say Marriette is so exotic and interesting it does draw you in. We have a filmmaker in the UK called Louis Theroux and there’s certain things that remind me within your film techniques but also within Mariette’s character that they’re able to get into these sights of power and as you say disarm people and I guess also with the gender, the mining directors are mainly male, they seem to all be white, so there’s really interesting interplays there. I love the way there’s comedy in there as well, with the fumbling of the pens, the notes, and quite disarming! People may see a certain way but there is that ferociousness and integrity and the drive and that is very effective and I can see how you’d definitely be convinced by her integrity there. Another key character within the film is Pule Molefe and I was really pleased to see you also captured the community side of some of the activism and some of the organising. We see a little bit in the film about how the community reacted to Marietta and some of the interplays of the community and I guess also particularly where Pule’s community is because the community that is moved, it wasn’t Pule’s community, it’s a different community, and how communities in general are responding and taking up this victory. Is there movement since the film, Marietta’s got involved in different communities and have there been other victories following this film?
SV: I’ll take them one by one. The character of Pule Molefe was extremely important. So when I came on board there was only one character in the film, and as Frederick says, his condition for saying that I was to be on board was partly because he realised you can’t have this film told from that perspective entirely and so I put on my journalist researcher hat and went around looking at these communities and looking at characters and looking at finding characters that could match the character of Mariette in a way that was equally strong with an equally strong story. Also, when I started the film he of course knew Mariette for some time already, Mariette had been working in the community already but my entrance into the story changed his whole attitude. So we could have a little bit of a private conversation about his nervousness around working with Mariette and how he wasn’t entirely persuaded by her in the beginning but at the same time saw how effective she was and then came around. The other community which is represented by the couple Palesa and Ishma, they have since been moved as you see in the film to a brand new neighbourhood that has been built up in the years since the film has been produced and they’ve got wonderful stories to tell about the sickness their children have been suffering from living on top of a toxic waste dump basically has now passed. There’s a lot of research by the University of [?] In Johannesburg into the long term effects of communities like that and other communities that are living in the shadow of these huge mountains of waste that we have just over the years began to see in Johannesburg. So that research has also picked up momentum as the result of the film, but one of the most important outcomes has been that the government has declared the mining environmental disaster to be a crisis, to be a national disaster, and that declaration has forced the government to take action. And the other big thing is that Mariette is now putting together a much bigger court case than the one that we started filming. And it’s a court case where the respondents are many, mining houses, government, individual directors and this is going to be the biggest mining court case of its kind in South Africa. She has used the film to strengthen her demand and to get a much higher profile for the work she’s been doing. At the same time after the film was released we had an impact campaign in South Africa and in other parts of the world and that impact campaign involved showing the film at universities, in schools, in mining communities, the usual thing but also building that momentum so that people make their voices heard on this issue.
SM: Thank you very much, again really interesting insights into the life after the film and its impact. I have more questions but I’d like to also offer it to our audience to see if there’s anything that people want to ask you as well? Yep, we have a question here… So we’ve got Yos in the audience, he’s got a family background of Jehovah’s Witnesses as well in the UK and obviously in the film they are white and he’s wondering whether in South Africa there’s also a movement of Jehovah’s witnesses that are black African?
SV: Oh, absolutely, across the board. It’s not a very big religious community but it is significant and very active and I have fond memories of a child growing up in black working class communities of hiding when the Jehovah’s Witnesses came knocking at the door! So it’s the same as in other parts of the world!
SM: Off the back of that as well I had a look at some of the things on the web around your other work and I was really heartened to see that you work around and speak about issues of mental health and I guess the narrative of Mariette speaks to her having a shift in life, a change, a crisis, and then realising what is important. So this is a film that maybe shows that for all our perceptions and prejudices about a character like Mariette that there is hope for change and I guess is that something you’re also hoping to show, that despite the Afrikaner background, that despite what we may perceive of people like this there is a place and it can be a really important place for people who have had… Even the mining executives I guess maybe there is also a place for people to work together for the justice we all seek?
SV: Absolutely and I think that as an activist in South Africa I’ve had so many personal experiences like that. There’s always redemption, nobody is irredeemable and when we look at the Afrikaner community we see former enemies but we don’t see our former enemies being immobile. People have changed over the years and some people have changed because it’s convent. Like you don’t find anybody who voted for Nixon and soon won’t find anybody who voted for Trump but at the same time other people have changed because they’ve had genuine changes of heart. There have also been two very prominent South African leaders that spoke to us as young activists many years ago – myself I had a very deep and personal connection with Nelson Mandela and then an ongoing relationship with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and both of those leaders have really driven it home in South African politics that reconciliation and forgiveness has got to be part of the deal. We cannot ever forget and we have to have reparations, but at the same time the reciprocal response is that there’s got to be reconciliation and forgiveness at some point no matter how hard it is. And for me I find the forgiveness part extremely hard.
SM: Yeah, completely. I guess leading on from that as well, some of the things that really impacted me was I think it was Peter or Neil from one of the mining companies speaking around the idea, particularly gold mining, has been great for Johannesburg and obviously that’s from a filmmaker a really important piece of dialogue to capture but I also wonder what your impression of this is. He says there wouldn’t be a Johannesburg without gold mining and 70 million Africans he says would be just there with fields which is really interesting when we talk about climate change and what we’ve done to the earth, so what was your personal opinion of what was said there?
SV: When we were discussing the edit with Stephan the editor who has since become a friend and that particular statement we felt said more about that man and about mining executives and the approach of mining people and big conglomerates to the earth’s resources and the prejudice that comes through in those few short sentences is profound. What he was saying is that 70 million Africans would be backward wandering around in fields not driving cars, not having modern advantages and progress and whatever, that shows an incredible level of stupidity, insensitivity, greed and just arrogance on a spectacular level. It’s the kind of soundbite that is a documentary filmmaker’s dream because it means we don’t have to say much – you’ve said it all for yourself.
SM: Beautiful, thank you. Are there other questions from the audience? Thank you, so this is a question about the scale of the issue. The mountains that you show are mind-blowing, so the question is around whether this affects just the communities that are near the mountains or whether it affects the whole of the city?
SV: Not just the whole of the city, I think there’s a figure that somehow got glossed over that when the wind blows those toxic particles can be carried for thousands and thousands of kilometres across Southern Africa, across Africa. Those particles that ingested are permanently… It lives in the system permanently, you don’t get rid of it. So the people living within the shadows of those mountains and close proximity to toxic waste are affected in certain ways and can be seen quite easily and has been researched quite intensely for the first time in the history of mining there is now credible and extensive research being done. But the effects across time and across vast geographic distances has not been researched and is not being looked at. So the general rise of cancers in the world, the proliferation of certain kinds of diseases that we’re told are lifestyle diseases, we don’t know the connection between that and mining waste which has now, and as you can see in the film, been classified as the second biggest environmental disaster next to global warming.
SM: Thank you! I’d like to ask then around obviously we have COP going on right now, you’re connecting with us in Leeds in the north of England. One of the things I’m very aware of from my own activism is that in London in our capital city this is where a lot of the corruption is and this is where a lot of the mining companies are based, do you have a message for our government and I know you state in the film some of the history is because of Britain and the Boer War and creating, dividing the continent. Part of the reparations you talk about is around the relocation but also the huge repair that’s needed to the land, so the money that’s been extracted so we know there’s always money can be found, the money’s swimming around for when it’s needed for certain things, for wars and everything. So as well as holding the people in South Africa accountable do you have any message or any ideas from the activism that’s coming out of the film around what we need to do to hold our government accountable in the UK?
SV: When I was a young activist during the apartheid years I remember looking at the television and looking at this nightly dose of propaganda around apartheid and why it was so wonderful and being extremely saddened but at the same time I could never understand why would people do such great damage when they have children, when that have grandchildren? Can’t they see this is no legacy for your descendants, you’re damning the world into a very dangerous place for your children and your grandchildren and so similarly when I look at the rampant greed, especially in Western countries, especially in Western Europe and North America and the unbridled corruption… It’s for me inexplicable. I can’t understand why you would do such serious damage to the limited resources of the earth and why you would think that mining corruption and an environmental disaster in South Africa can be contained and doesn’t have extensive effects on you in London or you in New York on the rest of the world. I think what we need to understand is that if the current crop of leadership dominated by elderly white men in the West and elderly men in general, if they don’t wake up and smell the coffee and understand that we have a huge disaster of complex proportions in many different ways around the world then we’re going to see the kind of violence that comes with global unhappiness, that comes with intense pressure on dissatisfaction around political unhappiness and around environmental disaster is going to explode in many many different ways. I’ve lived in a country where things exploded in one way but that’s nothing compared to what we’re going to see globally. I’ve always been a very rational journalist, storyteller, I don’t see myself as a doomsday prophet… But I think any reasonable person anywhere in the world knows that we’re headed for disaster unless we make these leaders turn around and if they don’t turn around the kind of violence that the world is going to see is going to force them to turn around.
SM: Beautiful, real talk, thank you! We’re getting applause, this is exactly what we need to hear, this can fire us, that the film has inspired us, thank you for connecting us to the communities you’ve shown, really educating us about the situation, informing us about the impact of the film, what we can do, what we can continue to do and I’m going to encourage everyone to seek out your work because I know you’re doing other things, you have done other things. Would you like to share any of your projects that you’re doing now? I know breath is also important so if you’re taking some breath and time that’s really healing as well and we obviously really honour that but yeah is there anything else you’d like to share as final words on what’s next for you?
SV: Yes I’m busy writing a play, another play. I’m also busy making my first feature film about history – all of my work is around history and heritage and our environmental heritage is extremely important for me as well as our common African heritage. But the only way I can do all of this work is to stay connected to my ancestors and to make sure I make time to breath and do things like yoga and meditate because right now the planet, if you want to know what you can do for the planet, meditate, breath, take time out because most of us are rushing around far too much and getting caught up in this modern maelstrom that sucks us under and the way we can really change is by changing ourselves and the way we can do that is take time, take good care of ourselves and breath.
SM: Thank you so much, it’s been so good to connect with you, everyone’s applauding we’re getting so much applause. I hope we can connect again, we look forward to connecting, to breathing together and healing. So thank you for all your work, thank you for joining us, thank you for the film, let’s fight, let’s do this!